This post is a touch late this week. I meant to finish it over the weekend, and then I got caught up in a really, really good book. Which was a good feeling! I stopped leisure reading in college because, as an English major with a heavy interest in philosophy, I had more than enough reading to do without adding to the list. So escaping into a good book is a welcomed return to a feeling from childhood.
Also. Research for this piece took me all over the place. Despite the recent sensation of the Amazon forest fires, specific facts, details, and statistics that I needed for this article are scattered all over the web. I promise you guys well-researched articles, so in order to give you that, I ended up needing an extra day for writing.
That said! Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the Amazon rainforest, why we should care, and what we can do about it.
Why Care? Preserve A Natural Wonder
The Amazon Rainforest.
Home to over 2,000 species of birds and mammals, ranging from dolphins to leopards, from sloths to macaws. Winding, raging rivers are home to more than 2,200 individual species of fish. All of these animals dwell under and in a dense canopy of 40,000+ plant species.
The forest is vibrant, dripping life and teeming with danger. The biodiversity if this ecosystem is like none other on the planet. 1 out of every 10 species known to mankind is represented in the Amazon. The rainforest of South America is invaluable to the majesty of planet Earth.
If we believe there is any obligation to protect the diversity of life that exists in our world, the Amazon is an exemplary place to start. How can we claim to enjoy and respect these animals, revel in the beauty of these plants, if we let the Amazon continue to be cut back and burned? Though there are fallacies in the media attention and Facebook posts that have recently been circulating in response to the Amazon forest fires, the fact remains that many of those fires are not only causing damage, but most of them are man-made, illegal, and preventable.
What’s Happening? Possibly Irreversible Damage
One of the deeply concerning elements of man-made rainforest fires is that rainforests are not made to bounce back from sweeping, unchecked fires. Certainly, natural fires spring up during the dry season of the Amazon, as they will in any forest, but these “generally do little more than burn dry leaf litter and small seedlings. Typically these fires have flames that only reach a few inches in height and have virtually no impact on tall trees or the canopy itself.”4
Not so with fires started from logging, deforestation, and agricultural efforts. In an attempt to clear out land for crop maintenance, Brazilian farmers will burn their fields. These fires are, ideally, legal and contained. Yet containment is not always perfect, and during dry years, these fires can be devastating to the rainforest canopy.
Think about the canopy of the Amazon. Tropical trees with wide, winding branches. These are not the oaks, pines, and maples of the North American forests. Developing defense mechanisms against forest fires was not part of the rainforest’s evolution. These trees are not prepared to bounce back. They will eventually return, slowly and surely. But if the fires continue to rage, will the canopy have enough time to recover? More importantly, if unchecked deforestation continues, there won’t be a forest left to recover.
What’s Happening? Cost in Carbon
In addition to providing a habitat for thousands of animals, the Amazon leaches toxins out of the air. Though it is a myth that the Amazon is responsible for 20% of the world’s photosynthesis-produced oxygen, the trees, ferns, and shrubs do absorb CO2 from our atmosphere. As part of the natural life cycle of a plant, much of this carbon dioxide is eventually, gradually released back into the atmosphere. But the key word here is “gradual.”
If the Amazon burns, we get a very different effect.
In a plant’s ordinary life cycle, it takes in carbon dioxide, breathes some of it back out, and slowly releases more CO2 upon the plant’s death. Some of the CO2 remains trapped, in what scientist refer to as a “carbon dioxide sink,” and thus never returns to the air. The fires of the Amazon Rainforest, however, emit megatons of carbon into the air all at once.
By comparing the amount of plant life present before and after the El Nino forest fires of 2015, researchers were able to estimate how much CO2 was released into the atmosphere. The fire burned approximately 0.2% of the Brazilian Rainforest, or ~0.13% of the entire Amazon. This “tiny” portion of the rainforest “resulted in expected immediate CO2 emissions of approximately 30 Tg” when it burned.”8
0.13% of the Amazon released 30,000,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This scattering of naturally-occurring forest fires released an amount of CO2 into the atmosphere comparable to 3% of all fuel emissions in the USA in a given year.10 As such, we can see that in the grand scale of CO2 emissions, individual forest fires are not our biggest greenhouse gas concern. Still, consider the fact that those fires emitted slightly more carbon dioxide than the 270+ million cars and trucks in the US emit in a week.
Why Care? Human Suffering
On Monday, September 16th 2019, the city of Sao Paulo went dark at 3:00pm. The sky was blanketed in black smoke. Airports were shut down, and civilians were hospitalized due to the air pollution.1 Sao Paulo is thousands of miles from the Amazon.
These are the immediate consequences of the air pollution from fores fires in the Amazon.
As has happened multiple times throughout Western history, it is the indigenous people groups in Brazil who suffer the most from the pollution of the air and land. Around 1 million indigenous individuals call the Amazon river basin home, and the illegal deforestation taking place is robbing them of their land, killing their crops, and, of course, sending them into hospitals due to respiratory issues.5
Some of these indigenous communities are isolated withing the rainforest, preferring to remain separated from the westernized way of life. As such, they do not have the all of the firefighting and healthcare resources that are available in more densely populated areas.5 If not for these illegal deforestation practices drying the Amazon and making it vulnerable to fires, such isolation would not – in this particular instance – be an issue.
If you’re looking for ways to help indigenous people directly, I’ve included this link for more information on ways to support them, financially and legally!
What’s Happening? Illegal Practices
As mentioned previously in this post, occasional fires throughout the Amazon and other rainforests are not unheard of. Dry seasons plus lightning equals fire, after all. However, the past few decades, and the past few years in particular, have seen an increase in deforestation around the Amazon.
This deforestation leaves the edges of the rainforest more susceptible to fires, as controlled burns are part of the deforestation process. Even if the initial burns are successfully contained, previously burned areas are more susceptible to fires in the future, due to the presence of dried out woods and grasses.
While some of the logging is legal, there is plenty of illegal logging and deforestation taking place. This illegal logging is characterized by intrusion onto protected land, cutting down protected species, and cutting beyond the authorized quota, among other things.9
From this short list, we can see that the illegal logging is running in direct contrast with the notion of sustainability. This is in part because much of the logging done in the Amazon is done on the basis of a government issued concession, which acts as a temporary permit for logging in the area. As such, the companies have little incentive to be sustainable, because they aren’t concerned about long-term profits from the land. They need to take what they can get while they can get it.
What Can We Do? Apply Pressure
As has been heavily featured in the news, the illegal deforestation around the Amazon is being more or less enabled by the Brazilian government. Like any world leader, President Jair Bolsonaro wants to see Brazil’s economy thrive. He is willing to do this, unfortunately, at great costs to the rainforest. Shortly after his election, his speeches about wanting to exploit the rainforest for economic gain reportedly “bolstered a sense of impunity among criminal groups that traffic in timber, exotic species, and other riches pilfered from indigenous land3.” Indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin reported increased activity on their land.
When recently put under pressure by the world at large over the raging forest fires in the Amazon, Bolsonaro promised to combat the fires. In addition to putting out the current fires, Bolsonaro claimed that his government would have a zero tolerance policy when it came to crimes against the environment2.
Yet, his track record says the opposite. He has gone to great lengths to decrease the legislation protecting Brazil’s natural resources, paring back fines on illegal practices and increasing the number of concessions issued. When pressed on the issue, he often comes across as caviler and indifferent to environmental concerns2. While he is certainly not the only world leader to feel this way, it is upsetting that a man in charge of a country with such rich resources is so dismissive of their intrinsic, not merely economic, value.
In order to combat this, the UN is reconsidering a trade deal with Brazil and other Latin American countries. The Mercosur trade deal would dramatically cut tariffs throughout the EU on goods imported from Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. While the trade is already in effect nominally, it has yet to be officially ratified. Since the “scandal” – for lack of a better word – of the Amazon forest fires, countries including France, Ireland, and Austria have all voiced concerns about signing a trade deal with a country that is practicing illegal farming and production habits.6
So where do you come in? If you happen to be reading this from an EU country, make your voice heard! Whether it’s going to marches, signing petitions, tweeting, or voicing concern directly to members of government, show them where your priorities lie. If you don’t live in the EU – which I believe accounts for most of my readers – you can still make a fuss. Brazil is not an isolated incident. And the more the citizens of the world, the entire world, show that preservation of the planet is important to them, the more politicians and legislators will have to pay attention.
What Can We Do? Shop with Awareness
The Amazon is not primarily being deforested in logging efforts. Many of the trees of the Amazon aren’t harvestable. Instead, logging is often a byproduct of the desire to get ride of the trees altogether. Due to booming demands, Brazil seeks to use the land for pastures and crops. Below is a list of primary exports leading to deforestation.
Industrial-scale cattle ranching is the leading factor driving deforestation. According to some perusing I did on cattle ranching forums (a corner of the internet I had not considered until today), if cows are being fed in pastures with ample rain fall, farmers still need ~1 acre per cow. This adds up quickly.
In 2018, the country exported $4.6 billion worth of frozen beef, making beef the country’s 10th most profitable export.11 Of course, this meet is being sent all over the world, but we can each do our part on cutting back demand. I say this as someone who drools over a good burger and loves my steak medium rare. I will fight anyone who goes to a steak house and uses A1 sauce. It’s blasphemy.
But at what cost are we enjoying these foods? Even if you don’t want to cut out red meat entirely, we can reduce our consumption, treating like an occasional treat rather than a staple of our diet. Reducing demand for a product will decrease Brazil’s incentive to supply it.
Sorry vegans and vegetarians everywhere, but you’re not safe just because you don’t eat cows. Soy beans are the #1 Brazilian export. In 2018, the country exported $33.2 billion worth of the stuff, making its economic incentive nearly 8x that of red meat.11
Of course, it takes less land to grow a dollar’s worth of soy bean than a dollar’s worth of frozen beef. Still, farmland for soy was estimated to take up roughly 83.5 million acres of Brazil’s land in 2016, and the acreage increases annually. That’s nearly 4% of all of Brazil’s land. And Brazil is a large frickin’ country.
Another lucrative crop for Brazil, sugar brought in $8.5 billion in 2018.11 Though it stands to reason that the sugar fields take up far less acreage than the soy, it’s worth keeping in mind that billions of dollars is still incentive for Bolsonaro to cut illegal deforestation some slack.
In fact, in 2018, Brazil was the world’s largest exporter of sugar. They produced 29.1% of all exported sugar in the world, exporting more than 2x as much as Thailand, the next country behind them.11
Let’s be honest with ourselves, cutting back on sugary goods isn’t going to do our bodies any harm.
What Can We Do? Donate and Volunteer
Amazon Watch is a nonprofit founded in 1996. Their mission is to “protect the rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin.” They aim to help ingenious peoples and the environment by encouraging higher levels or accountability for corporations exploiting the lands in and around the rainforest.
Their website is full of individual ways in which you can take action to show your support for the Amazon rainforest and the people who live there. As for donations, they, like most nonprofits, allow for either monthly or one-time donations. It’s all up to you!
Rainforest Alliance was founding in 1986, and they’ve been advocating for and monitoring activity around the rainforests of the world ever since. Their goal is to team up with groups around the world to “make responsible business the new normal.”
Not only do they provide straightforward ways to donate and get involved, their site is also FULL of information about the state of rainforests around the world, the effects of climate change, and ways in which you can be more environmentally conscientious. They also have a direct link to their audited financial documents. Go check them out!
amazon conservation association
Amazon Conservation Association was founded in 1999, with an initial project aiming to support nut harvesters in Peru and Bolivia, thereby encouraging and supporting sustainable farming practices. Their overall mission is to “unite science, innovation and community to protect the western Amazon—the greatest wild forest on earth.”
They support natural reserves and still put much of their energy into supporting farmers and encouraging sustainable practices, promoting sustainability and prosperity all at once. Donations can be made through their website.
Even with the additional organizations mentioned below, this list of pro-Amazon and pro-rainforest efforts is by no means exhaustive. One of the amazing aspects of the conservation and environmentalism movement is that so many people are on board for preserving our breathtaking planet. Organizations have been popping up all across the globe for decades, and I encourage you to do some digging and find one that speaks most to your spirit.
Some more orgs that do work to support the Amazon and the people who live there:
- Amazon Conservation Team
- Rainforest Foundation
- Rainforest Trust
- World Wildlife Fund
Hey guys! I’m planning on making this post the first of a series. As you can likely tell, this type of comprehensive article takes a lot longer to write that a 5-part listicle or a documentary review. As such, I’d really like to hear your thoughts!
What pieces of information did you feel were missing from this article? Do you wish the sources were referenced differently? Which part of the environment/planet are you eager to learn more about, in regards to conservation efforts and the effects of climate change? Let me know!
Follow me on Twitter: @AbbyHarrison33 @Blog_D2Earth
2“Brazil’s Bolsonaro on the Environment” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/27/world/americas/bolsonaro-brazil-environment.html
4“Fires in the Rainforest” https://rainforests.mongabay.com/0809.htm
5“Fires in the Brazilian Amazon and Indigenous People” https://rainforestfoundation.org/fires-in-the-brazilian-amazon-and-indigenous-people/
6“Macron Threatens Mercosur Trade Deal” https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/macron-threatens-mercosur-trade-deal-over-amazon-fires-1.3995540
7“Plants Absorb More CO2 Than We Thought” http://theconversation.com/plants-absorb-more-co2-than-we-thought-but-32945
8“Qualifying Immediate Carbon Emissions” https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2017.0312
10“US Gasoline Consumption” https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=307&t=10
11“World’s Top Exports” http://www.worldstopexports.com/